When director Matt Pfeiffer was an undergrad acting major, an older student handed him a VHS copy of the 1984 American Playhouse broadcast of “True West” — a right of passage familiar to many young, brooding male actors coming of age in the ’90s.
“It was handed to me like a sacred text. It was slipped into your hand, like, ‘Hey, go watch this. It’ll change your life,’” explains Pfeiffer. “And it sure did. It had a lot to do with shaping what I thought theater could be.”
Now Pfeiffer is directing perhaps the most ambitious Philadelphia production of Sam Shepard’s modern classic. Theatre Exile, working with designer Matt Saunders, will install the iconic play in Plays and Players Theatre beginning this weekend.
Set in 1980, the play centers on a pair of brothers housesitting for their vacationing mother. One brother, Austin, was invited to do so; Lee invited himself. Austin has built a successful screenwriting career and predictable suburban lifestyle, while Lee has pursued a life of petty crime, drifting and desert philosophizing.
“We all have a good side and a bad side. Most days we’re stuck with that. There’s no real way to talk about it aloud,” says Pfeiffer. “But Shepard has created two characters that I think clearly represent the two halves of his personality. They have to fight it out for supremacy, but of course no one can completely win that battle.”
Pfeiffer is aiming for a more a more measured, less chaotic “True West” than the one enshrined by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in that 1984 recording. So, while there will certainly be a few destructive swings of a golf club, there won’t be any need to install Plexiglas to protect the audience, as the Actors Theatre of Louisville did in 2012.
“There’s a reckless abandon to the Malkovich and Sinise version which has defined the play for some,” says Pfeiffer. “And it was wonderful to watch but, looking back, it kind of upstaged the play. I’m much more interested in hitting the play a little more squarely.”